What is jaw pain?
Jaw pain is any kind of pain or discomfort in the jaw area, which includes the lower jaw (mandible, often referred to as the jaw bone), temporomandibular joint (TMJ or jaw joint), and surrounding soft tissues. The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw to the temporal bone of the skull and is responsible for bringing the lower and upper jaws together. It is one of the most frequently used joints in the body.
Depending on the underlying cause, jaw pain can occur suddenly or build up over time. You may feel a dull ache, or it may be so painful that you can’t open your mouth to eat. Jaw pain may be triggered by various activities, such as eating, swallowing or merely touching the jaw area, as is the case with trigeminal neuralgia.
One of the most common reasons for jaw pain is stress to the temporomandibular joint, leading to temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD. The temporomandibular joint is immediately in front of the ear on each side of your head. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues surround the joint. TMD can be caused by wear and tear, injury, or disease of the joint and surrounding soft tissue.
Jaw pain can also be a sign of various other diseases, disorders and conditions. Relatively mild conditions, such as teeth grinding, can cause jaw pain. More serious conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, infection, and neuralgia. Jaw pain is also considered one of the hallmark warning signs of a heart attack.
If you are experiencing jaw pain in conjunction with chest pain or pain that radiates to your arm and shoulder, sweating, or shortness of breath, you may be having a heart attack. This is an immediately life-threatening medical emergency. S eek immediate medical care (call 911).
What other symptoms might occur with jaw pain?
Jaw pain may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Body systems that are seemingly unrelated to the jaw area can also be affected. For example, you may have a fever if the jaw pain is due to an infection or inflammatory process.
Symptoms that may occur along with jaw pain
Jaw pain may occur with other symptoms including:
Fatigue in the facial area
Limited ability to open your mouth wide
Popping or clicking sound while chewing or yawning
Swelling around the jaw or face
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, jaw pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack, that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition include:
What causes jaw pain?
Jaw pain is a symptom of a variety of different diseases, disorders and conditions. If you experience pain on one or both sides of your head in front of your ears, you may have temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). TMD is characterized by pain, tenderness, and trouble opening your mouth. TMD can be caused by behaviors, such as teeth grinding, improperly aligned teeth or bite, and age-related wear and tear on the joint and the disc that cushions the joint. More serious conditions that lead to jaw and joint pain include rheumatoid arthritis and neuralgia.
Disorders of the joint and soft tissues that cause jaw pain
Jaw pain is a sign of inflammatory, infectious, and autoimmune processes including:
- Age-related wear and tear on the jaw joint and surrounding tissues
- Jaw alignment disorder
- Jaw dislocation or fracture
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ (loss of blood supply to an area of the jaw bone, usually occurring in people taking bisphosphonate medications for osteoporosis)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Teeth grinding
- Temporomandibular joint disorder
Dental conditions that causes of jaw pain
Jaw pain is a sign of various dental and endodontic conditions including:
Other causes of jaw pain
- Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland)
- Trigeminal neuralgia (pain from the nerve responsible for sensations on your face)
Life-threatening causes of jaw pain
In some cases, jaw pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition including:
- Heart attack
- Oral cancer
Questions for diagnosing the cause of jaw pain
To diagnose the underlying cause of jaw pain, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your health care practitioner in diagnosing the underlying cause of jaw pain by providing complete answers to these questions:
- When did the pain start?
- Did the pain develop suddenly or slowly? Is it constant or intermittent?
- Does the pain occur with any particular activity, such as eating or yawning?
- What other symptoms are you having?
Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.
What are the potential complications of jaw pain?
Complications of jaw pain vary depending on the underlying cause. Jaw pain due to a problem with the joint itself can lead to permanent damage to the joint and surrounding tissues, necessitating jaw repair surgery and possibly jaw replacement.
Over time, jaw pain can lead to serious complications including:
- Jaw replacement
- Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies due to difficulty eating